Jill Abramson & Crytpoamnesia

Twitter, yesterday, was lit up with charges of plagiarism against Jill Abramson, former editor in chief of The New York Times. She has a new book about media — actually, a book complaining about technology, media startups and everyone else but the traditional media — Merchants of Truth. One of the companies featured in the book is Vice Media, and a couple of their writers found that there were paragraphs copied from their work, and works of other publication. That, is awkward, especially since the book is so preachy and finger wavy towards the new media and technology. Abramson has denied these allegations and pointed to copious footnotes, but what it is hard to shake off the evidence offered by the two Vice writers. 

Abramson’s current plight is every writer’s worst nightmare, and it could as easily happen to anyone. I am not trying to defend Abramson — I don’t know her and don’t care to meet with her. Frankly, I find most of the Times editors condescending towards new media innovations and those who use technology to chisel away at their yellowing ivory tower. There is a good chance that she might have used researchers, who took a shortcut or two — we have all copied and pasted from the Internet.

The sad part of the Abramson’s plight (or dilemma), is something that could be unintentional. We live in such strange times that sometimes the lines between what is real and what is not is continuously blurring. We read, and consume so much, that our minds start to mistake often data accumulated from other sources as our own. It is not intentional, just it happens. 

There is a word for it — Cryptomnesia, or memory sloppiness, that allows you to present others work as one’s own. That is an explanation from University of Nebraska cognitive psychologist Brian Bornstein who told the New York Daily News (back in 2009) that “we are constantly processing a huge amount of information, but our brains can only retain so much, so our brains prioritize the information and concentrate on only the most important aspects of that information.” At some more profound level, we are all suffering from it, and this might be one of those hidden societal problems, an unintended effect of technology and information explosion, that we have not thought about as much. 

I am currently working on a book, and I worry about the impact of the information I have stuffed into my mind. As a precaution — mostly to avoid the copy & paste disease and the “blockquote” behavior of a blogger — I have started to write in longhand, using a fountain pen and a notepad. I leave my phone at home. I sit down in a coffee shop for an hour or so, write and go for a walk, doing pranayama sitting in the park. This isn’t the fastest way to write — but it is just a precaution against the unintentional wavering of the mind. 

Back in time, Tariq Krim introduced me to a book called The Revenge of the Analog by David Sax, which explored why analog things like paper, vinyl, and film evoke a certain feeling of calmness and control. (Check out this podcast with Sax). I find myself retreating to analog approaches, only as a way to get a little control over the timeline of life, which seems to be moving at the breakneck speed of the network. 

Now as to Abramson, I will let her fight her own battles. I am in two minds, whether I should spend my money on buying her book or not. I do have an excellent new addition to my reading list — Educated by Tara Westover, a recommendation from my friend Margaret. 

February 7, 2019, San Francisco

A letter from Om

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